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My Faithlessness: The atheist way through AA
Six of AA's 12 steps explicitly refer to God, a Higher Power, or He.
August 28th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Faithlessness: The atheist way through AA

Editor's note: Marya Hornbacher's latest book, "Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power," explores what spirituality can mean to the recovering person who does not believe in God.

By Marya Hornbacher, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Kicked back with his boots on the table at the head of the smoke-dense room, the meeting's leader banged his fist and bellowed, “By the grace of this program and the blood of Jesus Christ, I’m sober today!”

I blinked.

This was not an auspicious beginning for the project of getting my vaguely atheistic, very alcoholic self off the sauce.

I wondered if perhaps I’d wandered into the wrong room. I thought maybe I’d wound up in Alcoholics Anonymous for crown-of-thorn Christians, and in the next room might find AA for lapsed Catholics, and downstairs a group for AA Hare Krishnas and one for AA Ukrainian Jews.

But a decade later, I’ve become aware that 12-step programs are home to people from every religion, denomination, sect, cult, political tilt, gender identity, sexual preference, economic strata, racial and ethnic background, believers in gun rights and abortion rights and the right to home schooling, drinkers of coffee and tea, whiskey and mouthwash, people who sleep on their sides or their stomachs or sidewalks.

Anyone who cares to sober up, in other words, can give it a shot the 12-step way.  The official preamble Alcoholics Anonymous states: "The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

And millions of people want that and find a way to do it in this program. I’m one of them. I was, not to put too fine a point on it, a raging drunk. Now I’m not.

It wasn’t magic; it was brutally hard work to get from point A to B. I do believe I’d be dead without the help of the people and the structure of the steps in AA.

But I don’t believe in God.

And this can be something of a sticking point when you’re sitting in a meeting room, desperate for almost any route out of hell, and someone cites “the blood of Jesus” as the only way to go. Or when you realize that six of AA's 12 steps explicitly refer to God, a Higher Power or He.

But this shouldn't be a dealbreaker. I’m going to make a lot of old-style AA’s cranky with this, but it’s perfectly possible to sober up sans belief in God.

At first that wasn’t clear to me. It’s unclear to most people because AA has a reputation as a cult, a religion unto itself, a bunch of blathering self-helpers, a herd of lemmings or morons, and it isn’t those things, either. It’s a pretty straightforward series of steps, based on spiritual principles, that helps people clean up their lives in a whole lot of ways.

But if you are of an atheistic or strongly agnostic mindset, chances are you’ll walk into a meeting, see the steps hanging on the wall and want to scream, laugh or walk back out.

I tried another tack: I made a valiant attempt to believe. I figured a) these people were funny, kind, and not plastered; b) they believed that some kind of higher power had helped them get sober; c) they knew something I did not.

So I did research. I read every word of AA literature I could find. I read up on the history of half a dozen important religions and a wide variety of frou-frou nonsense. I earnestly discussed my lack of belief with priests, rabbis, fanatics and my father.

People told me their stories — of God, the divine, the power of love, an intelligent creator. Something that made all this. Some origin, some end.

I told them I believed in math. Chaos, I said. Infinity. That sort of thing.

They looked at me in despair.

And not infrequently, they said, “So you think you’re the biggest, most important thing in the universe?”

On the contrary. I think I am among the smallest. Cosmically speaking, I barely exist.

Like anything else, I came into being by the chance, consist mostly of water, am composed of cells that can be reduced and reduced, down to the quarks and leptons and so forth, that make up matter and force. If you broke down all matter, the atom or my body, you’d arrive at the same thing: what scientists call one strange quark, with its half-integer spin.

And I find that not only fascinating but wondrous, awe-inspiring and humbling.

I believe that the most important spiritual principle of AA is humility. The recognition that we are flawed, that we can and must change and that our purpose not only in sobriety but in life is to be of service to others.

I believe that I exist at random, but I do not exist alone; and that as long as my quarks cohere, my entire function on this hurtling planet is to give what I can to the other extant things.

That keeps me sober. Amen.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marya Hornbacher.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief

soundoff (3,939 Responses)
  1. frenchie

    Great article. I'm glad she's sober and living a happier life.

    August 29, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
  2. Man

    Colossians 1:17 – And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

    Go to google images and type in "Laminin". It's an adhesive that holds the cells of our bodies together.

    August 29, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • Dave

      Thin. Very thin. Unless, of course, you can prove that the "apostle" Paul had knowledge of laminins during the time in which he lived? Even if he had, we already know he's a pathological liar...having perpetuated the legend of "jesus", when there's zero evidence to support the existence of such a man.

      August 29, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • vtrweasel

      Dave dude, I wanna party with you man. Joking, but good comments.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • Man

      LOL. Dave you're an absolute idiot. Prove to me George Washington existed?

      August 29, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
    • vtrweasel

      Man, you don't have a leg to stand on.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
    • Man

      Weasel, do you stand on the theory of evolution?

      August 29, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
    • Dave

      @ man...typical fundamentalist "christian" response...hurl insults and behave like a spoilt child when you hear facts you're not emotionally prepared to hear. The behavior of people like you is why the percentage of religious people in the world is shrinking, and the percentage of atheists is growing.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
    • Man

      @ Dave. I'm not a christian you idiot. I ran accross the laminin thing on the internet and wanted to see the reactions it stirred up.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • Dave

      Then stop behaving like one.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  3. conoclast

    This will probably be viewed as flippant but maybe there needs to be a 12-step program for those addicted to religion itself; I know more than a few in that category. Their lives, once steered by rational thought are now controlled by fear - and by those who cynically profit from nurturing that fear.

    August 29, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Dave

      There is a 12 step program to cure addiction to religion. It's called education. Grades 1-12, 12 steps. Coincidence? Nope. Why do you think the "christians" are trying so blasted hard to ruin school systems here in the states by making them teach "intelligent design" and "abstinence only"?

      August 29, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • USmellLikePee

      KoolAid Anonymous?

      August 29, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • joshua

      @Dave if Christians are ruining America why did we have all these shooting, and other problems after the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer was taken out of school. School use to be taught by Bible verses. I blame the athiest for the problem.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • Dave

      The Pledge hasn't been taken out of school, and neither has prayer. Why do you have to lie? The only thing that was stopped, was the schools inflicting pointless ceremonies on people who don't have anything to do with them. You'd be having a kitten if a school somewhere wanted to start every day with a "muslim" prayer...more and more kids in schools there days aren't "christian", so making them listen to a "christian" prayer simply doesn't make sense. Not to mention, a school has as much place teaching religious concepts as a church has teaching biology. I'll remind you...it was ONLY since we put YOUR bloodthirsty and jealous figment in the Pledge and on our money that this sort of thing started.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
    • Dave

      Oh, and Joshua...most of the shootings, (Columbine aside) were committed BY "christians". Your comment about school being taught by "bible" verse is fraudulent. You cannot teach by mythology. Blame atheists all you want...you "christians" are terrified of us and blame all the problems YOU caused on us, anyway. I just love how 85%+ of the population can be "victimized" by less than 10%.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
    • joshua

      @Dave you are an idiot, I seen the books seeing is believing moron. My Grandparents used them. It isn't false.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
    • Dave

      You've seen what books? The "bible"? That book talks about zombies, and is utterly untrustworthy. Next. Just because your grandparents had some fraudulent, baseless book of lies used in school does not mean they learned anything of value from it.

      I do find it funny that the very basis of your argument is calling names. What are you, six? Do grow up.

      August 30, 2011 at 1:10 am |
  4. george k.

    While i have a different point of view i have no problem with yours. Good point re: humility. I came into the rooms as an aggresive atheist but have changed my views. No small step after 50 years. My only problem with your article centers on the Traditions violation and in that the Traditions are based upon humility of the individual and primacy of AA as a whole, perhaps they would be worthy of consideration. peace.

    August 29, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  5. USmellLikePee

    Beer is proof of god's love for us all.

    August 29, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • Dave

      Thank you for paraphrasing Ben Franklin.

      August 29, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • DoesntSmellLikePeeAtAll

      Beer might be how you got that nickname there Pee.

      August 29, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  6. a nice cold one

    Is it beer:30 yet, I am so ready for a drink or two.

    August 29, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
  7. 808

    Great article. Having religion as a basis to getting sober from an addiction is like having religion as a basis to commit terrorist acts. Although it is an extreme comparison. Both examples carry the same characteristics on motive. I believe that we should stop using religion as grounds for everything we do as humans. But of course this has been the unresolved debate and will probably be the cause of our own demise.

    August 29, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • george k.

      AA is based upon spiritualty, not religion. A significant difference.

      August 29, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • Jack S.

      Interesting..." I barely exist." then "wondrous, awe-inspiring". Then again..."our purpose" then "I exist at random". Very interesting philosophy; random existence with a purpose. Hmmm ?
      KEEP COMING BACK !!

      August 29, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • Linddar

      I have been to Al-anon (sp) meetings which I believe is similar with regard to a belief in a "higher power". Believing in a higher power is very different than organized religion, especially if you admit you don't know exactly what that higher power is and don't give it a name.

      There are thousands of AA groups meeting in this country. I am certain the people that are involved vary significantly regarding religion and spirituality depending on what part of the country they're located, and even within the same town or city.

      August 29, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
  8. Martha Long

    What is stronger than a room full of sober drunks? Those who use the excuse not to attend AA because they do not beleive in a God do not want to get sober. AA does not even require you STOP drinking only that you have the desire to stop.

    August 29, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • USmellLikePee

      Now yer talking. Tap that keg already.

      August 29, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  9. Jane

    Thanks for your intelligent point of view. I agree with you 100%.

    August 29, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  10. the curmudgeon

    Nice peice....35 years and not taking it for granted....and to comeent on "AA says no to......." AA says no to nothing, merely suggests......not like a cult.

    August 29, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  11. Deirdre

    Just a couple of things:
    a. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions

    b. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking

    c. As stated in the "Big Book", Chpt 2 "There is a Solution", pg. 28, Third Edition: "We think it no concern of our what
    what religious bodies our members identify themselves with as individuals. This should be an entirely personal affair
    each one decides for himself in light of past associations or his present choice."

    d. I think as shown by the numerous persons identifying themselves as recovering atheistic alcoholics in this thread, the
    steps and the program work. If you are willing to work it. Period.

    August 29, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  12. bob

    Marya, thanks, it really does work. I'm a Chridtain and have been clean and sober for the last 24 years. Had to do it the 12 step way too. Tried a lot of other stuff, even got baptised 7 times but continued to drink. I am a retired alcohol & drug counselor, your story today hit me hard. There ahve been so many who returned to drinking because they just couldn't except the "God Stuff". Thank you, you have given them a way. Good Stuff, keep writing.

    August 29, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  13. Mista Magoo

    Nice Piece Marya: Progress not perfection and all that... ODAT

    August 29, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  14. CJ

    AA says no to cannabis, which is the best cure to alcohol abuse. No reason to join a religion (AA) to save your life.
    Look into RR if you cant do it by yourself.

    August 29, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • Dave

      The problem with that solution is, people who already have that addictive mindset will switch their addiction to pot. Even if the only addiction pot is proven to carry is a mild psychological one, the addict's personality will magnify that.

      August 29, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  15. LaRae Meadows

    Marya. AA works for those it works for (which is not many) because it is a cult. Why would an atheist ever join?

    August 29, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • Drew

      You obviolsy missed the point the first time. Keep coming back, it works. :)

      August 29, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  16. Sky

    You are a great writer....do you have any books that you have written?
    I want to read them.

    Thanks, SKY

    August 29, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • Dudus

      You are correct. Excellent author. You, on the other hand, could work on your "reading":

      THE FIRST LINE OF THE ARTICLE:
      Editor's note: Marya Hornbacher's latest book, "Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power," explores what spirituality can mean to the recovering person who does not believe in God.

      Sorry for being harsh, but seriously, line 1.

      August 29, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
  17. Casey

    LOL most atheist are alcoholic fools

    August 29, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • alan

      LOL most Christians are alcoholic imbeciles!

      August 29, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • Dudus

      LOL most Christians are hopeless sinners. We all have flaws, only Christians have found a way to "wash them away", the rest of us have to work for "cleanliness". Opps, your horse fell over.

      August 29, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • Beau

      Did your religion teach you that ignorance?

      August 29, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • Dave

      Thank you, Casey, for showing the world why "christianity" is failing. Judgmental, arrogant, prideful and intolerant. All the things you're not supposed to be. Gandhi was right.

      August 29, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Atheist

      There exist some people of the name Casey, who are not so good at trolling.

      August 30, 2011 at 5:24 am |
  18. diane

    whether or not we believe in a higher power, AA brings us together to heal and help each other with our struggle. That one can find purpose and sobriety while not embracing the exact structure of AA gives hope to those that are also atheist. Thank you for sharing this non "mainstream" view.

    August 29, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
    • LaRae Meadows

      The structure is that of a cult, which generally does not work for people who do not respond to religious views. The idea of a "higher power" is not without meaning, it means something to AA. AA requires submission and if there is nothing to submit to, there is no point to AA at all.

      August 29, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • rawr

      absolutely ridiculous LA.

      August 29, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Atheist

      LaLa doesn't have the slightest idea of what he/she writes.

      August 30, 2011 at 5:26 am |
  19. Patrick O'Neil

    Thanks Marya – as someone who has been in recovery for many years, worked as a counselor, and is a member of a 12 step program – I struggle with this issue as well. Not that I have belief issues. But I have to deal with members of my fellowship believing that I HAVE to believe in GOD, or I am doomed. Oddly enough, I've 10+ years, and I have acceptance of others.

    August 29, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
  20. One Dollar

    LOL...don't believe in God yet He pays your bills...look at your money LOL

    August 29, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
    • QS

      To expand upon that "logic" – our currency does indeed display "In God We Trust" on it....and money is the root of all evil.

      August 29, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Man

      Wrong. The "love" of money is the root of all evil.

      August 29, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • MrLogic

      To further extrapolate:

      Girls = Time x Money
      Time = Money
      Therefore:
      Girls = Money x Money = (money)^2
      Money = sqrt(evil)
      Girls = (sqrt(evil)^2)
      Girls = evil.

      I know it's old, but it was CALLED FOR.

      August 29, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • Dave

      So, your "god" was a deadbeat before 1956? We didn't profane our money that way until then. Funny...we put your deity into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, pit it on out money in 1956...and our country started going to hell in the 1960's.

      August 29, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.